John Ioannidis, MD, is red hot! The meta-researcher is featured as one of the brave thinkers of 2010 in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. He’s lionized for his ground breaking research about research. A 2005 paper in which he charged that most current published research findings are flawed remains the most-downloaded article in the history of the Public Library of Science.
Ioannidis arrived at Stanford in late summer from Greece where he served as a professor and chair of hygiene and epidemiology at the University of Ioannina. He’s taken the helm of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, an interdisciplinary think tank that conducts problem-focused research to test and distribute disease prevention and control programs.
Ioannidis is such a rock star in the world of biomedical research that I was glad to nab him to talk about his work for my latest 1:2:1 podcast. (Since The Atlantic feature, he's received thousands of e-mails and speech invitations.) We had a broad and fascinating discussion.
Bloggers contend that some science deniers have latched onto him as as a sort of icon to their cause. He completely swats away that notion and rejects in any way that his work would give deniers of science any solace. "Definitely what I have done would be killing any science denier," he said. He also dismisses as oversimplification the notion that 90 percent of research is flawed, telling me:
There are some fields where 99 percent of what is published could be wrong. And there [are]’s other fields, or types of research... where a significant result may be 95 or 99-percent likely to be true.
He believes that science has often over-promised results. “We declared a war on cancer and we claimed that cancer would disappear before the end of the 20th century,” he told me. And even though “we’ve made fantastic progress, all too often it has promised miracle cures.” But he’s hardly indicting the federal investment in research as not being worth the pursuit of knowledge. He actually makes the opposite argument.
I asked Ioannidis what he would change in the research enterprise if he were the head of the NIH. Seeing the role as an evangelist for research he said a primary task would be to:
Try to convince the public that what scientists are doing is fantastic. And we’re trying to pursue many different leads. Some of them may be successful. Lots of them would not be. They (the public) should not be furious with us if we spend money on 100 different projects and only one of them materializes to something that’s useful for patients or healthy people.
Hits and misses, he believes, are the nature of science.